Bill O’Reilly, growing up in Levittown, and experiences with race

While doing some research on suburbs and race, I ran into a 2014 exchange between Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly about the latter growing up in Levittown, New York:

Of Levittown, Stewart riffed, “It gave you a nice stable, a cheap home — there was no down payments. It was this incredible opportunity … Those houses were subsidized … It wasn’t lavish,” said Stewart.

The back-and-forth that followed is essential to understanding the Fox News celebrity:

O’Reilly: No, they weren’t subsidized. They were sold to GIs, and the GIs got a mortgage they could afford.

Stewart: Did that upbringing leave a mark on you even today?

O’Reilly: Of course. Every upbringing leaves a mark on people.

Stewart: Could black people live in Levittown?

O’Reilly: Not in that time — they could not.

Stewart: So that, my friend, is what we call in the business “white privilege.”

O’Reilly: That was in 1950, all right.

Stewart: Were there black people living there in 1960?

O’Reilly: In Levittown? I don’t know.

Stewart: There weren’t.

O’Reilly: How do you know?

Stewart: Because I read up on it.

O’Reilly: Oh, you read up! You don’t know that. I can find somebody…Why would you want to live there? It’s a nice place, but it’s not a place like … Bel Air, come on!

The paradigmatic suburb of the post-World War II era did not allow blacks in the community for years. This influenced thousands of residents in Levittown, thousands of black residents who instead had to move to other suburbs, and many more who lived in similar suburbs across the country that had similar exclusions.

While the conversation above is about Bill O’Reilly, it hints at a broader connection that many would like to make: growing up in a more diverse community in terms of race and ethnicity (less is made here of social class) will lead to more tolerance and acceptance of difference for those same adults. Because O’Reilly lived in a white community at a critical age, he had fewer opportunities to engage people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and develop relationships and understanding.

Even if the stereotype of the white and wealthy suburb continues (and for some good reasons), suburbs today are less homogeneous and this can lead to a variety of experiences.

The well-cultivated lawns of Levittown

The history of environmentalism in the suburbs Crabgrass Crucible includes this description of how Levittown encouraged good looking lawns:

Abraham Levitt, among others, remained keenly aware of the additional work and expense suburban horticulture demanded, as well as the collective benefits that could follow if all Levittowners took the time and trouble to cooperate. However well-chosen and planted, all their grass, shrubs, and trees would die, and the chickweed prevail, if new owners’ commitments and skills were not also fortified. Through a gardening column in the Levittown newspaper, Abraham opened up a weekly line of communication to bring home to Levittowners how “lawns, like all living things, require care.” He “used to come around in a chauffeur driven car” to check on his homeowners’ floral upkeep. If lawns went unmowed or unweeded, he sent his own landscapers to do the job and followed up with a bill in the mail. Most developers at the lower end, like the Romano brothers, were far less solicitous, especially once their homes had been sold.

As lawn cultivation was taken up by new as well as longtime homeowners, its collective benefits, reinforced by the pressure of neighbors’ peeled eyes, helped make it the most ubiquitous of horticultural practices on Long Island. Whether these residents were white or black, however, their memories downplayed the landscaping contributions of builders and developers. Early Levittowners recalled a “sea of dirt” or mud that surged with rain, an uneven respreading of the topsoil, and scrawny, “inexpensive” shrubbery and trees. Residents later remarked little about any lawn damage from roaming children or dogs, or the neglect of lawn care by a neighbor next door. Instead, whether they were Levittowners or lived in African American Ronek Park, their recollections revolved around a joint if rival pursuit of horticultural handiwork. “Everyone” took up the mowing and watering and often the fertilizing and weed killing. As with Levittowners, Eugene Burnett remember “a kind of competition goin’ with that” that made Ronek Park yards into “some of the most beautiful lawns I’ve ever seen anywhere.” Caught up in the lawn-making enthusiasm, even Robert Murphy tried to plant one outside his Crystal Brook home. Yet for large lot owners, the dynamic was less intensely communal – the Murphy’s lawn was not even visible from the road. For denizens of Old Field, but also for smaller lots of horticultural hobbyists, lawns drew less investment of emotion or energy than other vegetation they cared about. (77)

Three pieces of this stand out to me:

  1. The pressure to maintain a nice lawn was present in the early post-war mass suburbs. It may have been present in earlier suburbs but fewer Americans could access those communities.
  2. It appears some of this pressure was promulgated by Abraham Levitt, part of the company that founded the community. At the same time, the developers of Ronek Park did less to landscape new homes there and the pressure to have a nice lawn also was present there.
  3. There are some hints that social class matters here regarding lawns. Was the lawn an essential part of purchasing a single-family home which offered access to the middle class American Dream? Could a poor lawn reduce or invalidate the success of the new suburban homeowner?

It is hard to imagine images of postwar suburban homes, whether in magazines, film, or television shows, without lush green lawns.

Perfect lawns and suburbanization

A comic on how much water, energy, and land is devoted to lawns in America includes information on when the perfect lawn emerged:

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Woe to the suburbanite who follows the ideas of this comic and lets their perfect lawn disappear. Not even drought such as that experienced in California in recent years (see posts about California lawns here, here, and here) would convince all suburbanites to give up on the perfect lawn.

How might the quest for the perfect lawn end? Here are a few scenarios:

  1. Younger generations and retirees have less and less interest in maintaining a yard. Once you have handed off those duties to your HOA or a business, why not just cut out this cost all together?
  2. A restriction on lawnmower emissions or noise. I live in a fairly quiet neighborhood yet one of the major pollutants – both in noise and burned gasoline – must be lawnmowers.
  3. New construction includes other kinds of lawns that are greener and more cost-efficient in the long run. It may be difficult to let a lawn go once you have it but imagine future homebuyers starting with no lawn.

Finding residential segregation in the Long Island suburbs

Long Island might be suburban New York but there are sharp racial divides across suburban communities:

Two villages, Hempstead and Garden City, lie adjacent to one another in Nassau County. Hempstead has a medium household income of $52,000. Garden City’s is $150,000. Hempstead, in parts, resembles an inner city—with bodegas, laundromats, low-rise apartment buildings. Garden City is a suburban idyll, with tree-lined streets, gourmet grocery stores, and large colonial-style homes. Garden City is 88 percent white; Hempstead is 92 percent black and Hispanic (split about evenly). The transition between the two villages occurs within one block, a visual whiplash. See for yourself. Travel up North Franklin Street on Google maps.

“Long Island is becoming more diverse, Nassau County is becoming more diverse,” says John Logan, a Brown University sociologist who has been studying demographics since the 1970s. “But within Nassau County there’s been hardly any change in the degree of segregation. The predominantly minority areas are becoming more minority. And the predominantly white areas are staying mostly white.”

That demographic story of Nassau County, Long Island, is the story of the nation’s suburbs at large. Zoom way out, and it looks like the suburbs are becoming more diverse—a welcomed reversal of the racist housing policies of the last century that kept minorities in the cities. But zoom in, block by block, and you see that within those suburbs, stark segregational divides like the one between Hempstead and Garden City still exist…

Here’s the one data point to make that case: When Logan controls for income, he finds that blacks and Hispanics who earn over $75,000 a year live in areas with higher poverty rates than whites who make less than $40,000.

This is an old and ongoing story. As numerous scholars have pointed out, one of the first mass suburbs in the United States, the Levittown on Long Island, refused to have black residents for years. And, even as more minorities have moved to the suburbs in recent decades, whites and minorities don’t always live in the same places.

Read more about sociologist John Logan’s findings regarding Separate and Unequal in Suburbia here.

The two basic floor plans in the original Levittown

One important aspect of the influential Levittowns were the houses: simple, cheap for buyers, and could be efficiently built.

http://www.ushistory.org/us/53b.asp

The Levitts mass-produced these homes in a way that would become fairly standard among large builders. The process involved manufacturing a number of the pieces off-site and having different crews tackle each home site at different points of the home’s construction. This process differed quite a bit from the rest of the housing industry which was largely comprised of small builders who took more time with each home. While this mass process led to more uniformity (and suburban critics jumped on the architectural similarity as a metaphor for all of suburbanization), it also dramatically reduced the cost of houses. A number of initial buyers noted that they could purchase a new home in a Levittown with a cheaper monthly cost than they could rent accommodations elsewhere.

Two additional thoughts about these floor plans:

1. A fascinating aspect of these basic house models is the number of modifications made to the homes over the decades.

2. The square footage of these new homes, roughly 1,000 square feet, is unthinkable today in new homes as the average new American home is now over 2,500 square feet.

The balloon-frame building invented in Chicago in 1833

The building technique that helped give rise to mass-produced suburbia was invented in Chicago in 1833:

But traditional building methods required hand-hewn beams, hand-wrought mortise and tenon joints, lapped half dovetails, and something more crucial — labor-intensive construction at a time when labor was spread too thin.

Then in Chicago, Augustine Taylor got credit for creating balloon-frame construction, a hammer-and-nails forerunner to the light-frame construction that still dominates U.S. housing…

Experienced builders supposedly derided Taylor’s St. Mary’s Church in Fort Dearborn as “balloon-framed” because it looked like a stiff breeze would blow it away. But many accounts suggest the name came from a similar French Missouri type of construction called maison en boulin

Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel attributed the invention to Chicago carpenter George W. Snow in 1832. The Chicago History Museum and other scholars point out that Virginia carpenters in the 17th century — facing similar pressures to build fast — employed similar techniques. But it wasn’t mass-produced like Chicago was prepared to do. Between 1866 and 1875, the Lyman Bridges Company of Chicago sold pre-fab balloon-frame structures to western settlers, one of several purveyors of so-called “sectionalized housing.”

This technique was perfectly suited for mass produced suburban housing in the post-World War II era as it could involve standardized parts, be constructed quickly, and be done cheaply. Builders like the Levitts could quickly construct the frame of a home (after a foundation was laid) and then have a series of other workers come through to complete the home. The majority of American homes rely on wood studs nailed together – not complicated but relatively sturdy.

It is interesting to see that this is the #5 innovation from Chicago’s history. Considering the work that went into some of the others (like #8 Reversing the Chicago River), the balloon-frame structure had an outsized impact on American life.

You can indeed paint McMansions and the suburbs

One columnist is taken aback when someone is able to paint the suburbs:

Some while back, I sniped that, while landscapes of the kind that made the New Hope School of Impressionist Painting so influential continue to be painted in the absence of the actual scenery, the McMansions that knocked farmland off the map seem not to have inspired anyone.

I was wrong. For several years, pastel artist Michael Wommack of Langhorne has been exploring the suburban grid, affectionately in the case of Levittown, where he grew up, and with more of an edge when it comes to pretentious developments in the former hinterlands.

Wommack’s “A False Sense of Security,” among works on view at Pennswood Village through May 12, was inspired by a cul-de-sac in a pricey neighborhood the artist drove past one day…

He calls his tract-house studies “The Suburbia Series.” “People who know Levittown call it ‘The Levittown Series,’ ” he says.

This might confound suburban critics who often argue that suburbs have little redeeming value. Art dealing with the suburbs, whether it is in novels, on the big screen, or on canvas should then be devoted to the hidden dark sides of suburbia. But, suburbs, like other locations, are made up of people trying to make sense of the world, however misguided their efforts might be. For someone who grew up in one of the Levittowns, it sounds like a perfect subject to me.

It would then be interesting to see how people respond to such paintings. Would critics take non-critical depictions of the suburbs seriously? Would exactly would purchase paintings depicting Levittown-like communities?